Robin Scott-Elliot took a selective online novel-writing course with us in 2016. Since taking the course Robin has discovered his passion for writing for children. His debut middle grade novel The Tzar’s Curious Runaways is out now from Everything with Words.
Read on to find out more about Robin’s journey to publication …
You were a student on our three-month online novel-writing course back in 2016. How did your time studying with us impact your approach to writing?
To begin with just getting on to the course was a fillip – I’d wanted to be a writer for so long and never got beyond polite rejections, and lots of them. So getting on to the course felt like a first step in the right direction. The first impact of the course was a simple message – if you want to be serious as a writer you have to take your writing seriously. No more treating it as a hobby.
The course – Nikita Lalwani was our fantastic tutor – made me think about what I was doing and dissect it in a way in which I hadn’t done probably since university. I loved the challenge of the weekly ‘homework’ task and how it benefitted the MS I was working on at the time, particularly with character development, something I always find tricky. It was also instructive to see how my coursemates went about the same task. What I didn’t appreciate is how much you can learn from your coursemates, and that carried over into the feedback. Giving and receiving thoughtful crits of each other’s manuscripts I found really hard. Learning how to take criticism is so important, and not easy.
The ‘extras’ the course provides through contact with CB agents also helped enormously – again underlining if you’re not serious about this then what are you doing here? Which does not, by the way, mean you can’t enjoy it as well. The whole experience was a huge motivation to keep going.
Many of our students find their writing community on our courses, are you still in touch with any of your coursemates?
We have a Facebook page and are in contact through other social media. A few of us were chatting regularly to begin with but it has gone quieter over the last couple of years. Which is a shame not least because there were some intriguing novels in progress and I’ve often wondered how they ended.
Your debut novel The Tzar’s Curious Runaways recently received a five-star review in the Telegraph. How does it feel now that your book is out in the world getting such positive feedback?
I was gobsmacked when I saw the Telegraph. Children’s books get very little review space in the nationals – certainly far less than their market share – so for a debut author from a small publisher, Everything With Words, to get one of the three weekly children’s slots across the broadsheets was a very big surprise! There are so many truly great children’s writers about just now there really should be more attention paid to kids’ books in national newspapers, although we are lucky to have so many good bloggers who do so much to push the ‘cause’.
I always get Karen, my wife, to read any reviews first because I’m too nervous! If I get a good review it makes me want to turn on the laptop and get writing again. But first I have a glass of something – there are so many tough times you have to take a moment to mark the good ones!
The Tzar’s Curious Runaways is a children’s novel set-in 18th century Russia. Can you tell us a bit more about your debut and what inspired you to write this story?
We begin in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg; Peter the Great is dead and with their protector gone Katinka, a ballerina born with a hunched back, and her friends Alexei the giant and Nikolai the dwarf are forced to flee for their lives. They’re part of Tzar Peter’s Circus of Curiosities and the Tzarina wants them dead. So with the help of the Tzar’s mysterious, and possibly magical, librarian, the three children set out on a perilous journey across Russia’s great steppe searching for a place to call home.
I adored adventure stories as a child – Robert Louis Stevenson and Herge were my favourites – and I’ve always loved history. In particular I’m fascinated by the history of Russia, from the Second World War back through the Revolution and the time of the Tzars. Perhaps it stems from being a Cold War-child; this vast, unknown country with its tumultuous past, its great writers, its cruel rulers, staring at us across the Iron Curtain…
I was writing an adult novel when I did the online course – I never considered writing for children until my daughters nagged me to do a story for them. They made me promise I would when I sent my adult one out on submission. Out it went and I did as I promised my girls – the adult one got nothing but rejections, the children’s one found a home.
How did you approach the historical research that went into this novel?
I was reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s wonderful history of the Romanovs – can’t recommend it highly enough – when I came across mention of Peter the Great’s Curiosities so the idea developed as I was reading around the subject. I read several other books on Russia and spent hours trawling the web for information on 18th century Russian monks, the colours of the Preobrazhensky Regiment’s uniforms, the early history of smelting by the Yegoshikha river etc, etc. I’m a sucker for wondering around the web chasing history.
Luckily I’ve been to Russia a couple of times as a journalist so have had a taste of St Petersburg and a few other parts of the country because as a debut author there was no way I could afford to go to research the book.
Is there any advice you’d like to pass on to aspiring authors?
Don’t give up. Since doing the online course I’ve read all the interviews with graduates in the newsletters hoping one day I might make the list… meanwhile the rejections from agents and publishers piled up.
If you really want to do it, keep going. Celebrate the small steps, take a deep breath at the knock-backs and go again and again and again. It’s like being in Chumbawamba (if you can remember their one hit)!
Thanks to social media there is so much advice out there, so much good advice – I found Will Dean’s YouTube videos really helpful and encouraging. I think getting your elevator pitch right is a great skill to develop. Even if it is just about the hardest, most irritating job in the entire process. You often read agents saying if you can’t boil your story down to one punchy paragraph then there’s something not right with it. The stories I’ve been able to do that with have got somewhere, the ones I haven’t have been turned down and banished to my bottom draw.
Talk us through a typical writing day, do you have any routines?
I’m like a small child, if I don’t stick to my routine I get stroppy and difficult to deal with! The room where I write is on the side of the house and out of wifi reach so I can’t ‘just check Twitter’ which is a blessing. I also share the room with the kids pets so have a dog, guinea pig and rabbit to keep me company (the rabbit likes to chew on my plot notes).
I am extremely lucky in that I did a job swap with my wife. Without her support this wouldn’t have happened. She works full-time and I look after the kids, do what freelance journalism I can and write as much as I can. And when you’re sitting outside the kids’ choir, swim club, whatever, there is always time to mull over a sticky part of the plot.
What’s next for you and your writing journey?
Keeping going with children’s books. They are such a great audience to write for – getting to talk to kids about the book and see their enthusiasm for reading has been one of the highlights. My next book, again with Everything With Words, is due to come out this summer. The Acrobats of Agra is set during the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and features a Scottish girl, an Indian boy, a French acrobat and a tiger.
Pick up a copy of The Tzar’s Curious Runaways.
Start taking your novel-writing seriously on one of our novel-writing courses. Our selective six-month spring 2020 courses are open for applications: in London with Jake Arnott or online with Lisa O’Donnell & Andrew Michael Hurley.
Or, if you’re writing for a younger audience, apply for our three-month online Writing YA & Children’s Fiction course taught by Catherine Johnson.
We also run three short online courses designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journeys: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.